Thursday, 22 October 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 2

(continued)

During her last two years at school, Karin Boye moved away from Buddhism and towards Christianity. Many of her schoolfriends found it hard to understand how she could have accepted Christianity, as previously she had always talked about it with cynicism and a kind of dry laughter. At first, the change seems to have been a source of happiness and self-discovery for her. Buddhism had become a life-denying influence on her, and for the first time she began to experience a sense of personal and inner freedom. At this time, she kept diaries. These are mostly of an 'inner' nature, containing meditations on religious experience. In one passage she describes how she came to her religious awakening:

Now I have reached the age of twelve or thirteen, the borderland between child and young person. Like a milestone shines the memory of one single book: Kipling's Kim. It is the last of my childhood books that I remember, and at the same time the one that probably meant most for my development.

In the moving figure of Teshu Lama, religion entered my life for the first time as a living reality. That may seem strange for a child who had had a good Christian upbringing. But the child's religion is often so far from deserving the name 'religion' that it seems to me fruitless - with perhaps only a few exceptions - to offer a child the divine beauty of the Gospels, and a sacrilege to set the Gospel stories as homework. For me 'the Bible stories' were worn, everyday, already too well-known, when the hunger for religion began to awake. Teshu Lama - prepared by Puran Bhagat of The Jungle Book - came like a message from a world that had hitherto been closed, and I trembled, and I fell down and adored.
At the age of eighteen, she experienced a liberation and a transformation: an entry from the summer of 1918 reads: 'Domine, rex, venisti, vidisti, vicisti.' And on the eve of 1919: 'My birth-year is at an end.'

The diaries also concern Karin Boye's experiences not only at school, but also at Christian summer camps, where she seems to have approached the fairly routine group discussions with extraordinary intensity, forming close attachments to other girls and women in the groups. Two such relationships seem to have been particularly important for her. Agnes Fellenius, one of her classmates with whom she mutually shared all secrets, became quite severely depressed because of conflicts within her home, and Karin Boye took it upon herself to rescue her from the effects of this. She began to supervise Agnes' schoolwork, and made her take the final school examinations, trying by strength of willpower to make her pass, which she did. Margit Abenius describes how Karin stood outside the examination room, 'wrapped in intense concentration and the desire for a good outcome'.

The other important relationship was with Anita Nathorst, a woman who was seven years older than her and was a student of theology and the humanities at Uppsala University. At the Christian summer camp Karin attended at Fogelstad, Anita Nathorst was a group 'mother', looking after the young female students. Karin Boye wrote to her friend Signe Karlsson:

Our 'mother' was Astrid Nathorst's sister, Anita Nathorst. Do you know who she is? Oh Signe, such a person! She is so wonderful! One day Ruth, Brita, Daisy and I carried blankets out into the park (it was immensely large) and took Anita with us and lay and talked. I don't think I shall ever forget it. I think I could dare to say all that I think and wonder to Anita and be certain that she would never misunderstand me. And one understands so well what she says. My goodness, it is not everyone of whom one can say that one understands what they mean.
By 1920, Karin Boye was a student at Uppsala University, and was herself a group mother at one of the meetings, held at Almnäs on Lake Vättern. It was at this meeting, with its 'question box', into which the schoolchildren put their questions about life and God, that Anita Nathorst helped her through her revulsion at, and fear of, human suffering, emotions that had led her to adopt Buddhism. A long letter from Karin Boye to Agnes Fellenius tells us something about the relationship between Karin and Anita:

Then there was a question about the innocent suffering and death of creation. What it said, more or less, was: the animals eat one another. Can one hope for a continuation for the poor innocent victims? Can one believe that suffering has a meaning? Anita had the question and answered yes. She demonstrated that the lower life was sacrificed so that the higher could stretch ever further upward towards the divine, and she ended by reading a poem by Jeanna Oterdahl about a little boy who sits weeding in a garden plot, but suddenly feels sorry for the weeds. Then his mother says that the weeds will later become soil, and from the soil the beautiful flowers and the nice vegetables will get their nourishment. Must not the weeds like giving them their nourishment? Then the boy is pleased that he can help the weeds to become soil. That answer acquired a deep significance for me. When I did not yet believe in God, I saw creation's innocent suffering and was horrified: that was why I so eagerly clutched at Buddhism's life-denying pessimism. Later, when I directly perceived life's value, I no longer dared to think of anything but human life. The other seemed terrible to me. Now I see suffering again - but in a different light. I said to Anita: 'Then that means that every meal we eat is a sacrament.' 'Of course,' she replied, 'have you never thought about it? That is why we say grace at table.' 'I have never understood why one ought to pray more there than elsewhere.' 'Formerly it was conceived as a sacrament. The first ritual action of the savage was shared meals. That is also the meaning of holy communion. The whole of life is a sacrament.' Do you understand this? Do you also understand how deeply this must move me? I fancied I saw the world in a new light - in the sign of the Cross, of representative suffering. God's cross extends through every time and every space. And what else is holy communion but an initiation to the Cross, the new union with God: one initiates oneself in order for His sake to take a part of His eternal suffering - upon oneself, to fight God's fight in the world: it involves great pain. I understood, or thought I understood, how Christ at the moment of communion gave himself as a sacrifice (oh, those old, worn-out phrases, something new shimmers through them now), when he said: 'This is my body - this is my blood.' Do you understand me? (NB You understand, I don't have in mind representative suffering as Anselm did, it is only this I mean: one person's suffering can serve and light the way for others.)

(to be continued)

Biographical Profile - 1

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